Karine Laval | Photographer | Reflections

French photographer Karine Laval's images are utterly vivid, or evoke a sunbleached, dreamlike quality. They stir without sentimentality, and seem fresh and new in their abstract angles and reflections, while feeling altogether familiar. A recent collaboration with Hermès saw Laval's exclusive window installation inspired and drawn from her series of photographs, Heterotopia.

Here, she tells her story, and talks through her bodies of work, The Pool, Poolscapes, and Heterotopia, ahead of her book Poolscapes being published by Steidl later this year.

Catch the last days of Karine's exhibition, Reflections, at Crane Kalman Gallery, London, until 19th August.

Karine, you were raised in Paris and studied at the Sorbonne, then in New York, where you now live. It's a real tale of two amazing cities. Can you talk about any differences or similarities to working and creating in both?

I didn’t find my voice in photography and become an artist until I moved to New York, so my experience of working and living in these two magical cities is quite different. I worked for four years at UNESCO in Paris, a United Nations agency dedicated to education, science, the environment and culture. I moved to New York when I was 25 to fulfill a desire to travel and live abroad. In retrospect, I think it was a way to break free from what was expected of me by my family and society, and a way to find my true self. I don’t think I would have dared become an artist if I had stayed in Paris. The relentless energy of the city and the detachment of being a complete stranger in a foreign place pushed me to explore and pursue my dreams without fear of failure or being judged. In New York I found the strength and inspiration to give up everything to take on photography full-time, and become an artist.

Your work - especially The Pool and Poolscapes - is very much about evoking childhood memories and dreamscapes. Do you have any particular recurring dreams or memories that have influenced you?

These two bodies of work are definitely rooted in my childhood and a dreamlike sense of timelessness. Ever since I was a child, I’ve had a strong connection to water, learning to swim at an early age and spending summers sailing with my family in Brittany or on the Mediterranean. I also spent part of my adolescence in the Caribbean, where my dad lived for several years. I think the closeness to water and nature, the exotic landscapes turned fantastical in my dreams and memories, all had an impact and influence in the way I perceive the world and relate to it. I think my use of colours, particularly, has been influenced by these vivid memories. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, a lot of these childhood moments were recorded on Super 8 films by my father and grandparents, which I was delighted to watch over and over as a child and teenager. Somehow, I’ve tried to capture the texture and atmosphere of these home movies in my work, especially in The Pool series, which I shot in various spots around Europe.

Your upcoming book and essay sound highly personal? Can you tell us any more about that?

Poolscapes, my upcoming book with Steidl, is very personal in the sense it explores and revisits moments and blurred memories from childhood, evocative of dreams, through the subject of the pool. However, beyond my personal memory it's also a collective memory I am trying to reveal through the common and universal experience of leisure and bathing. I’m also interested in the notion of space and the relationship we entertain with the environment in which we live, where the natural collides with the artificial, man-made environment.

The book brings together three chronological bodies of work focused around the theme of the swimming pool, realised over the course of 10 years. The first part of the book focuses on public pools in urban and natural environments in different countries throughout Europe. The second part is centered on private swimming pools photographed in the US. 

The progression of the book invites the reader/viewer into a physical journey through space and perspective: as one goes through the pages of the book, one can follow the gaze of the photographer from a low vantage point looking up, then going downward towards the surface of the pool, and finally into the depth of the water. To me, this journey through space and perspective somehow mirrors the evolution and layers of interpretations contained by the image of the swimming pool. The opening pages invite the reader into a sunbleached midday at a public pool, evocative of childhood memories of playful and mundane activities such as jumping, diving, going in and out of the water, or just lounging and contemplating in anticipation of all of the above. As one leafs through the pages, the images begin to shed any social or descriptive references to move into murkier waters, so to speak.

As the vantage point shifts, so does the representation of the pool, whose surface transforms into a mirror reflecting a dreamlike world where the imagination of the viewer is triggered. Strong geometric lines, familiar architectural structures and objects recede to give way to more abstract patterns of blurred shapes and colors. We are suddenly taken underwater - beneath the skin of the pool - into a realm where the stillness of the initial contemplative images seem to have been disturbed by a collision of some sort, be it the collision of the real and the imagined. The immersed figures, distorted and fragmented in what looks like a state of disintegration or metamorphosis, can be seen as a metaphor for the tormented soul and shifting states of the mind, thus revealing the unconscious and darker connotation of the pool.

Where else do you draw your own influences and inspirations, if at all?

My influences and inspirations are drawn from life and experiences, travel and encounters, and the curiosity I’ve nurtured ever since I was a child. Music, literature and contemporary dance are also very important and have influenced or inspired some of my works. For instance, my latest body of work Heterotopia was partly inspired by writer J. G. Ballard, particularly his fantasy novel The Unlimited Dream Company (1979), which I was reading when I started to work on the project. The title of this project is also derived from French philosopher Michel Foucault’s essay “Des Espaces Autres” in which he uses the term “heterotopia” to describe “spaces of otherness” that are “neither here nor there,” such as the reflection in the mirror or gardens, which represent truly ambiguous and contradictory spaces where nature and artifice collide in what can be seen as a form of utopia. 

You talk of fusing your photography, film and digital media with performance. This sounds really exciting. Can you tell us anything about any future projects?

One of the key characteristics of photography that keeps me interested in the medium is the possibility for experimentation, whether I use film or digital technologies. Coming from a background of analogue photography, digital opened up a lot of new possibilities for me, and broadened my practice from shooting on location to a studio practice. I also enjoy playing with the dichotomy inherent to the medium of photography where its precision and technical aspect can be played down or overridden by accidents. The camera is only a starting point for me; the process of creating the final image or work is sometimes slow and can involve different stages, including darkroom or chemical manipulations (like for The Pool and Poolscapes series) or other forms of alterations.

I have also been experimenting with video and Super 8 films for more than 10 years. Some of my moving image works were borne out of collaborations with other artists, particularly in the fields of music and contemporary dance. For me, video and film provide a form of liberation from the limitations of photography and allow me to explore further the notions of space, memory and our relationship to the world. By going beyond the two-dimensional plan of the photograph and integrating the physical space to create more complex images, the onlooker is immersed and becomes part of the work itself.

Sound and music can add texture and an emotional dimension, and I often use sound as a dissonant or surprising element. I created ‘soundscapes’ for several of my video works, collecting found sounds and mixing them with distorted everyday noises and tracks. One such example was during Artificial by Nature, my recent exhibition at Benrubi Gallery, New York, where I presented larger-than-life projections of Heterotopia. Sounds I had recently recorded in the Costa Rican rainforest intermingled with live improvisation by Aaron Kruziki on bass clarinet. Aaron and I are now planning an LP recording which will serve as a documentation of our collaboration, but also as an object and new artwork in itself. It will be a sonic sculpture activated by a turntable, which can be presented alone or in the middle of a room with the moving images projected on all surrounding walls.

Your work has been exhibited as part of the Hermès Artist Windows collaborations. How do you approach working with a client, or on a collaboration? Does it differ as a process to how you create your own work?

It’s such a privilege to work with or for clients such as Hermès, or architects, who respond to my work and want me to create a site-specific piece. It’s a very different process as it usually involves working with several different people (architects, fabricators, marketing or communications directors) and it integrates a third dimension, space, in the process of creating the work. There's a constant dialogue, and it is often a way for me to explore new aspects of my work and push my own limits. For my collaboration with Hermès I created Heterotopia to be presented on a large display made of three seamless screens embedded in the wall, plus an exclusive window installation inspired and drawn from the same series. Although I have worked with video and film for over a decade, the project for the window installation allowed me to expand and translate my still images into three-dimensionality and to work in a new medium for me: sculpture.

Finally, you have exhibited widely in Europe and the US. How are you feeling about 'the now' as a time to be working as a creative?


I think it’s fantastic to be working as a creative now, with limitless possibilities and opportunities offered by ever-evolving new technologies, the access to knowledge and art history through the internet, and the democratisation of the arts through a broadening audience via social media. But at the same time it can be a trap, as the speed at which people make images and need to share them instantly can be overwhelming, to say the least. That’s why I follow my heart and intuition and enjoy what I’m doing, as this is the best motor for discovery and to keep going. In general, I find that patience, curiosity, experimentation, and a genuine sense of playfulness and openness are key to staying fresh creatively.


To see more of Karine's work go to karinelavalstudio.com or follow her on Instagram @karinelaval .

All images © Karine Laval 2002-2016.


ArtDebra DrewComment